An Interview by Martina Bednáriková, Part 2
Teachers don’t teach merely to make a living. Instead, they teach to enable their students to live more fully, with greater vision, and with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. Gabriela Lojová, one of the plenary speakers at this year’s ELT Forum, believes that teachers are able to change and enrich our world. Sounds like a serious challenge, right? After all, nobody has a greater impact on future generations than those who teach them. Children learn what they live; and it is only when we, teachers, go into the world and do our jobs well that they can learn to go into the world and do good.
Slovak Chamber of English Teachers (SCET): Tell us more about your own writing process. When did you start writing and why? Where do you get ideas, and how and when do you usually write best?
Gabriela Lojová (GL): Actually I started writing years ago as a secondary school teacher encouraged by some professionals. Later, as a young university teacher I wrote because I had to as it was part of my job. Only later, as I became more knowledgeable and experienced did I start to feel a kind of inner need to write. The ideas I believed in and presented to my students seemed so temporary, fleeting as if I needed to make them more “permanent” and available to those who were interested and shared my teaching philosophy. Due to my unshakable belief in learner-centeredness as the most effective approach to teaching and learning, there are so many ideas yet to study, adapt and share with Slovak teachers for ages to come. Of course, it is necessary to keep in touch with the latest developments in foreign language teaching in the world, i.e. to read professional materials, attend conferences, and so on. Never mind students and in-service teachers who are an endless resource of new ideas themselves, as I have already mentioned. I have many ideas in my head that I would like to get down on paper. The problem is time. Unfortunately, I am not able to write a bit at a time, let’s say whenever I have some free time. Writing for me is a long-term activity – I need quiet, undistracted by other duties, in particular the tyrant of administrative paperwork.
SCET: You have also taken part in the Fulbright program. How did you decide to go and teach at Montclair State University? We would like to hear more about your experience teaching in the USA. What aspects of the culture and classroom differences were most challenging for you at first?
GL: If you ask like this, it is difficult to cut a long story short. OK, I´ll try: I’d always wanted to teach abroad. Every time I’d go on short study visit to other universities or met the many native English-speaking teachers coming to our department, the desire grew. The stories and experiences were so diverse, so different and interesting! So I seized the opportunity when the Fulbright Program application came across my desk.
Students at MSU were very different. What was most challenging? At the beginning, it was their English. My students were from 11 different countries, each of them speaking their own pigeon English. My poor ears were used to Slovak English or standard British English! Sometimes I had no idea what language they were speaking. It was a real nightmare as my lessons were based on classroom interaction. And they seemed to understand one another quite well! Another major challenge was facilitating the classroom activities and balancing students’ roles and interactions. Due to the strong cultural differences, their classroom behaviour differed enormously. Only there did I realize what it really means that each student is different! Just imagine a quiet, passive, modest young Asian who usually went along with whatever his/her classmates did and an impulsive, self-confident, “experienced” American working together in one group! Add an African student who had left her country for the first time a couple of days ago and the fun just never stopped! As I said, it’s a long story.
SCET: You’ve presented numerous times at conferences and such. What do you remember about your first presentation and what has changed since then? What would be your advice to teachers who would like to start presenting at conferences like ELTForum.sk?
GL: Oh, I’d rather not recall my first presentations! I felt as if I was not myself, as if my head was not mine, as if I stood there naked, as if it was presumptuous of me to be there hoping that people might be interesting in what I was saying. I memorized the whole presentation word for word (as I didn’t want to read it) and spent the whole time focussing on what to say next. I didn’t think about what I was saying at all, I wasn’t aware of the audience, I just wanted to survive.
Now, when preparing a presentation, I write all the ideas pretty much in detail. Then I structure it logically and prepare a PowerPoint presentation, which must be concise and “listener friendly”. When presenting, I have my paper with the main ideas highlighted, but I usually don’t use it at all. The PowerPoint presentation keeps me on course, and I’m thinking about what I am saying. More than anything, though, I’m aware of the audience’s reactions and try to adapt my speech to their responses. As soon as I focus on something memorized, I lose all concentration and contact with my listeners and I cannot wait until it’s over. But that doesn’t happen often anymore 🙂
What’s my advice? Be yourself! Tell the audience that this is your first presentation and 2-3 words (not more!) about how you feel. An audience made up of teachers tends to be empathic; they’ll understand and make it easier for you. If you make any kind of a mistake or “get lost” or whatever, don’t panic! It happens to everybody, it’s absolutely normal and everyone can understand. Just take it all in stride, mention it in passing, gather your thoughts, and continue.
Just go for it! In Slovakia, there are many great teachers who have a lot to share with us – I wish they would!
SCET: I am wondering whether you find any free time in your busy schedule… What do you like doing when you are not teaching?
GL: Like most of us, I have to say I have no free time as any free moment I fill with something. Usually, those are things like reading, some cultural events, travelling, doing sports…and, of course, ballroom-dancing training. But it’s in doing those things that I have time with my friends and family, which I cherish.
SCET: Do you have a life motto?
GL: For years it was the well-known one:
Live and let live! (Ži a nechaj žiť!)
But I’ve modified that over the years to:
Enjoy life and let those you love enjoy it with you!
And as a teacher I adopted another one:
In each child, there is something good. Do your utmost to find it and help it grow!
Gabriela Lojová is an associate professor at the Department of the English Language and Literature of the Faculty of Education, Comenius University in Bratislava. Apart from teaching courses on English grammar, her research interests and educational activities are focused primarily on applied psycho-linguistics, psychology of foreign language learning and teaching, and FL teacher training. Her work aims at the humanization of FLT, and looking for more effective ways of teaching English. Professor Lojová’s books include ‘Foreign language grammar teaching: theory and practice’, ‘Individual differences in foreign language learning?, ‘Learning styles and strategies in foreign language teaching’ (with Kateřina Vlčková) and ‘Theoretical foundations of teaching English in primary education’ (with Zuzana Straková). Professor Lojová was a Fulbright Lecturer/Scholar at Montclair State University, NJ, where she taught a course on SLA Methodology.